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Smokejumpers Prepare For Record Drought

by Lorrie Barclay |

In the midst of one of the country’s worst droughts in decades, firefighters, particularly smokejumpers, who often parachute into the worst kinds of wildfires at a moment’s notice, are ramping up for a particularly challenging summer. It takes considerable training to fight many wildfires, sources tell Government Security News.

Just this week, dozens of wildfires ravaged about 10,000 acres in San Diego County, CA. The Colby Fire, near Los Angeles, burned about 2,000 acres recently before it was contained. These are just a few examples, some say, of increasing fire risks at a time when rain has been scarce across many U.S. states. To prepare for similar incidents, smokejumpers have been going through rigorous preparations to fan out some of the possible upcoming fires.

When fires blaze up far from any road systems, it can be difficult and time consuming for fire department land crews to reach the blazes, allowing them to grow rapidly. “Smokejumpers are cost effective because it’s a really fast way to get firefighters and gear to the fire faster,” Ken Frederick, spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center, told Government Security News.

“In Boise, we hire eight to ten rookies each year and we tend to get about one hundred to two hundred applicants.” Frederick continued, “Two, three, or four rookies don’t make it through the five week training course.”

The rigorous training to become a smokejumper involves physical endurance. On the first day of training, smokejumpers have to carry a pack weighing one hundred pounds for three miles in less than 90 minutes. Each year experienced smokejumpers have to complete a series of refresher training courses such as aircraft exiting procedures, parachute procedures, parachute landing rolls, and parachute and cargo retrieval.

Frederick explained there are three main objectives to prepare a smokejumper: having jumpers in top physical shape, mentally prepared to be able to recognize problems and malfunctions in a matter of seconds, and as a firefighter, being able to endure long challenging conditions.

When a smokejumper jumps out of the plane, they have “a helmet with faceguard, Kevlar jumpsuit, and three packs. [The three packs are]: on their back is their parachute, on their chest is their reserve chute, and below their reserve is their line back,” explained Frederick. There line back consists of gear to help aid them once on the ground, such as radio, gloves, batteries, head lamp. Firefighting tools, food, and water are dropped by parachute to the firefighters after they land near the fire, making them self-sufficient for the first 48 hours.

The Kevlar jumpsuit “contains two large pockets on the legs. One pocket holds the pack-out bag, which includes their sleeping bag. The other pocket includes 200 foot of nylon, flat rope we call webbing,” he added. In the event that the jumper is tangled in their parachute, they have to be able to tie-off and propel using the nylon webbing.

After smoke jumpers complete a jump and the fire on the ground is controlled, they still must be able to carry out with them a pack that can way 120 lbs or more and travel half a mile or sometimes up to six or seven miles to their pick up zone. They must leave the area with everything they came in with.

“Statistically, [smokejumping] is very safe because they use protocols that have been perfected over many decades.” Frederick said.

The smokejumper program began in 1939 as a means to provide initial attack quickly on forest fires. The first fire jump was in Idaho's Nez Perce National Forest in the Northern Region in 1940.

The two Bureau of Land Management smokejumper bases are in Boise, ID and Fairbanks, AK. The U.S. Forest Service smokejumper bases are located in McCall and Grangeville, ID, Redding, CA, West Yellowstone and Missoula, MT, Winthrop, WA, and Redmond, OR.